Thursday, May 7, 2009

Posthumous Perspective

A couple days ago, Literary Agent and blogger Nathan Bransford posted a link to this article in The Guardian about the publication of books after the death of the author, against the author's wishes. This has happened to the likes of Louis L'Amour and and Roland Barthes and work in an unfinished state has as well been published by Jack Kerouac, David Foster Wallace and even Douglas Adams. The author of the Guardian piece and Mr Bransford posit the question: Is it right? Is it right or even good that these works are being dug out of a desk drawer (or hard drive) where the author hid them and sent out into the world? Is it any less right if the author saw them as private or even unpublishable? Is it good that we act against the wishes of those who have passed and run the risk that our wish to know more, to read further will ultimately dilute their oeuvre? Or do these hitherto unpublished works bear some value that surpasses the intentions of their author? For a long time, I was dismissive of these publications. The "lost" works that crop up periodically from dusty shelves of the Louis L'Amour estate or the constant publication and re-publication of every rough drafts and errant doodle of JRR Tolkien. And yet, so much of what we know about our history is epistolary. How much do we benefit from these posthumous publications as a literary culture? The letters of most major authors are bequeathed to academic libraries after all, for grad students to pore over for centuries to come. It will all be published or referenced eventually. Is the harm somehow greater if it happens soon after an author's death while his or her loved-ones can benefit rather than waiting a decade or a century for some scholar to do the same? Some of it is bald exploitation, turning a parent or grandparent's literary output into a family cottage industry. Some of it approaches real scholarship, the careful cataloging of a noted forebear's letters, stories and correspondence. And to some extent, the expiration of copyright 80 years after the death of an author protects our culture from being completely handcuffed by the efforts of literary heirs to control their ancestor's works indefinitely. At some point, control will slip from the family and these works will be explored and cataloged and written about or published anyway, by strangers yet to be born. I'm reminded of the minor controversy surrounding the publication of Douglas Adams's incomplete and half-conceived novel The Salmon of Doubt. The publication was met with a certain amount of ridicule and outright horror by close friends and even many of his fans. And indeed, Douglas probably would have been mortified in life had he ever published such an incomplete work, almost an outline really. And his friends were right to say so. Nevertheless, it's also true that these half-formed thoughts never would have seen the light of day had he lived to complete them. No publisher (it is hoped) would publish the rough draft of a novel by a living author. Just as the fact that they have died makes ratchets up the impulse to protect and defend their vision, it is only in their deaths that these things find meaning, and only posthumously that this glimpse inside a mind that will no longer gift us with its imaginings becomes compelling and necessary for us to grasp the vast potential of our loss and explore the limits of that mind. We think no worse of the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald just because we've read his posthumously-published works, or the love letters he wrote to Zelda. The passing of the author impercetably changes the gravity and context of the writing. It changes our perspective on the content and the value. Authorial intentions fall by the wayside as the writings shift from the invasion of a living person's privacy to a niche as part of the historical record. Just as I can now read the V-mail my grandparents exchanged while grandpa was fighting in the WWII in a completely different light than ever I could while they were alive. If nothing else, reflect for a moment upon the controversy we visited recently of the identity of one Master William Shakespeare. He wrote some amazing plays and poems. Coined much of the common vernacular we use everyday. Yet we don't know much about him, and argue endlessly about who he was (or wasn't). So much of our argument and the speculation that swirls around him results in the lack of his letters, personal papers and posthumous publications. So many arguments about his identity must be made from silence, for silence is all we have. As with anything, it's really all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).